Columns, The Outside Story

A Slow and Stealthy Traveler

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WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – When June’s heat starts to take hold, who doesn’t want to take life a little slower? When it comes to masters of slowing down, look no further than the humble turtle. Vermont is home to seven turtle species, including the secretive Wood Turtle. From June to September, Wood Turtles split their time between the streams where they overwinter and seek refuge and their upland foraging grounds. Wood Turtles are omnivores whose diet reflects their mixed habitat; they regularly consume fish, invertebrates, insect larvae, earthworms, and plants. By mid-June, females seek out nesting areas, at times traveling up to one mile to get there. They prefer to dig their nests in soft soils and often create several false ones before deciding where to lay their eggs.

Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta)  © mellohrer (from iNaturalist) licensed under CC-BY-NC

Wood Turtles are important members of stream communities and can serve as indicators of stream health. To survive, they need clean water, relatively undeveloped upland habitat, and intact connections between their streams and foraging grounds. Many other Vermont animals, from trout to mink, require similar conditions and benefit from measures that protect Wood Turtle habitat.

“Where are all of Vermont’s Wood Turtles?” you may ask. They are naturally elusive. Even people who frequently visit Vermont’s streams may never encounter one. You may not even guess that they are found in all 14 counties! Unlike other turtles, which often bask on exposed rocks and logs, they prefer filtered light and vegetation to screen them from view.

There is another important reason why they are difficult to find: they are rare. In fact, Wood Turtles are listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Vermont. Over the years, their slow speed and undeniable charm have made them victims of both human-driven land use change and collection. Their frequent journeys across the landscape also make them common casualties along roadways, where our desire for fast travel conflicts with their slow pace. In many cases, mortality from these sources far outpaces this long-lived species’ reproduction rate, making it difficult for populations to recover.

If you are interested in learning more about how you can help Wood Turtles, visit the Vermont Fish and Wildlife website. Share sightings at inaturalist.org/projects/vermont-atlas-of-life. All locations are automatically obscured to safely share discoveries and contribute to Wood Turtle monitoring in Vermont.

Emily Anderson is on the staff at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

Emily Anderson

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